Why Innovation Lab?

The new knowledge-based and innovation economy is changing the workplace and the nature of work itself.  In the United States, K-12 and higher education are under increasing pressure to address the knowledge, talent, and skills that will allow young people to be “workplace-ready.” Students growing up as digital natives demand relevance and contextualization for their learning.  

According to a report from the OECD in 2010, “OECD societies and economies have experienced a profound transformation from reliance on an industrial to a knowledge base. Global drivers increasingly bring to the fore what some call ‘21st-century competencies.’ The quantity and quality of learning thus become central, with the accompanying concern that traditional educational approaches are insufficient” (Erstad, 2013).

Similarly, the Hewlett Foundation (2012) states: “We found widespread agreement that America’s schools must shift focus dramatically in order to prepare all of our children to succeed in a fiercely competitive global economy and tackle the complex issues they will inherit.”

These are just two of many examples pointing toward the need and demand to change how we teach our children and redesign schools “in the current era” away from the old Standardized Education model. 

School improvement and reform efforts have typically focused on improving outcomes within the traditional post-industrial model of schooling. While there are compelling aspects of current education, as outlined by John Hattie and others, it is not enough. “A discussion involving the whole class, in which the teacher not only stops lecturing but releases some control for the topics and direction of the lesson, is associated with improved achievement as it presents opportunities for students to learn from one another, supports personal engagement, and compels more critical thought” (Davis et al., 60).  However, schools continue to struggle to consistently engage their student body. It is increasingly clear that schools need to design and build innovative new models that enable students to develop the critical skills, motivation, and knowledge to thrive in a rapidly changing world; in other words, schools need to take the initiative to foster innovation in the design and operation of schooling and make learning more relevant and meaningful for students.

The acceleration of digital technology is having an enormous impact on education reforms, resulting in numerous innovations that are reflected in Systemic Sustainability and Authentic Education models:

  • New blended learning models – offering wide access to knowledge, capitalizing on new technology in combination with face-to-face teaching
  • Micro lectures, video tutorials (e.g., Khan Academy), and custom digital textbook development
  • Online courses, large scale participation, personalized learning, such as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses)
  • Integration of community service, apprenticeships, and academic learning
  • Collaborative learning environments and networks
  • Project-Based and problem-based learning – students learn from hands-on real complex tasks
  • Competency-based learning incorporating advancement relative to skill mastery, digital assessments, e-portfolios, College and Work Readiness Assessment
  • Increased public-private and school-workplace partnerships (P-Tech/IBM in New York)
  • “Built from scratch” school models  that represent complete and successful redesign of school (High Tech High, Envision Schools, ASPIRE)

New, successful learning models emphasize relevance, rigor, and relationships by leveraging technology as a tool to differentiate and enhance instruction. Learning is individualized and made relevant and practical, students are well known by adults, and high levels of student engagement and motivation are achieved. These models, over time, will expand and transform schools and learning environments, making quality choices more widely available to students within the United States.

Initial explorations of research lead those of us at Greenwich High School to the following belief: A school of choice within GHS that takes advantage of the vast resources available through the comprehensive program and offers an alternative to the current model has the potential to meet the needs of students, staff, and the greater GHS community;   An innovative school model offers a wide range of benefits to students, teachers, and communities. We needed to embed authentic learning with systematic sustainability. 

For students, this means that choice is expanded, and students are given access to a different school model that may better serve their learning styles and interests and ultimately better prepare them for our changing society and economy.  Since 2015, we have offered this model, and students report successful transitions beyond InLab and into university, citing the skills they developed in the program as integral to their success.  Additional students have indirectly benefited from the atmosphere, materials, tools, and expertise available within Innovation Lab, including the GHS Robotics Club, which utilized the STEM classroom and tools for its team meetings, and Freshmen mentoring cohorts who are invited to the STEM classroom for small build activities as part of the mentoring curriculum. Each Innovation Lab teacher also teaches outside of the program, so our philosophy has also spread into the wider high school academic setting.  Our students, through their passions and projects, have also enriched GHS organizations such as the “Names Day” committee, which prepares anti-bullying education for our students, and several have even created clubs to combat real social issues like sexual harassment in schools.

Professional growth and engagement deepen as teachers become designers and facilitators of learning and work in teams to develop and refine practices that can be showcased and shared.  By way of particular example, several Innovation Lab colleagues and I have presented multiple times at High Tech High and a Deeper Learning Conferences to share the Presentations of Learning model with other teachers and administrators.  In recent years, I also presented at the respected NEASC “Showcase of Model Schools Program.” We so impressed the commission that a video of our student’s presentations of learning was used later as a teaching model throughout the Northeast. All of this allows invaluable collaboration at a national level but also reflects the values of authentic and sustainable education.  

Schools, students, and teachers across the system benefit when there are effective options for learning. A school of choice expands options and potentially improves educational outcomes overall for the community. Redesigned models also offer opportunities to engage other partners (in business and the community).  Before COVID, administrators and teachers from other schools across the district and state visited Innovation Lab and then used what they learned in the implementation of their own programs. For example, Hamilton Avenue School brought their 5th-grade classes to InLab for an experiential learning field trip; Windrose teachers from our alternative school visited InLab to meet with teachers about project-based learning, and the Innovation Lab exhibitions increased our visibility in the community. Administrators and teachers from schools around the state, country, and as far away as Switzerland and Colombia have visited our program and garnered advice from our faculty as they build and develop their own programs.

An additional but essential benefit is that Innovation Lab acts as a hub for research and development of innovative practices that have the potential for scale throughout the system. We are well aware that we are operating in a period of change, and while we must adapt, we must also carefully research and test new approaches for efficacy before implementing them district-wide. The “school of choice within a school” model allows for effective R&D that can benefit students without removing them from the full complement of educational resources available within the high school. It enables us to pilot change on a small scale before spreading it across our vast institution to pursue systemic change. “As schools and other cultural institutions find themselves out of step with the transition from a mechanization-focused, industrialized society to an ecologically minded, information-based society. Teaching is coming to be seen in terms of helping to develop awareness of self, others, humanity, and the more-than-human world” (Davis et al., 2015).


Davis, B., Sumara, D., & Luce-Kapler, R. (2015). Engaging Minds: Cultures of Education and 

Practices of Teaching (3rd ed.). Routledge.

Erstad, O., & Sefton-Green, J. (2013). Identity, Community, and Learning Lives in the Digital Age. 

Cambridge University Press.

Not convinced yet?

Check out this article about High Tech High, a consortium of schools with a similar philosophy:  https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2018/02/06/whats-so-different-about-high-tech-high-anyway/

Here are some videos that inspire us: